For years now, George W. Bush has told Americans that he would increase the number of troops in Iraq only if the commanders on the ground asked him to do so. It was not a throwaway line: Bush said it from the very first days of the war, when he and Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld were criticized for going to war with too few troops. He said it right up until last summer, stressing at a news conference in Chicago that Iraq commander General George Casey "will make the decisions as to how many troops we have there." Seasoned military people suspected that the line was a dodge that the civilians who ran the Pentagon were testing their personal theory that war can be fought on the cheap and the brass simply knew better than to ask for more. In any case, the President repeated the mantra to dismiss any suggestion that the war was going badly. Who, after all, knew better than the generals on the ground?
Now, as the war nears the end of its fourth year and the number of Americans killed has surpassed 3,000, Bush has dropped the generals-know-best line. Sometime next week the President is expected to propose a surge in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq for a period of up to two years. A senior official said reinforcements numbering "about 20,000 troops," and maybe more, could be in place within months. The surge would be achieved by extending the stay of some forces already in Iraq and accelerating the deployment of others.
The irony is that while the generals would have liked more troops in the past, they are cool to the idea of sending more now. That's in part because the politicians and commanders have had trouble agreeing on what the goal of a surge would be. But it is also because they are worried that a surge would further erode the readiness of the U.S.'s already stressed ground forces. And even those who back a surge are under no illusions about what it would mean to the casualty rate. "If you put more American troops on the front line," said a White House official, "you're going to have more casualties."
Coming from Bush, a man known for bold strokes, the surge is a strange half-measure too large for the political climate at home, too small to crush the insurgency in Iraq and surely three years too late. Bush has waved off a bipartisan rescue mission out of pride, stubbornness or ideology, or some combination of the three. Rather than reversing course, as all the wise elders of the Iraq Study Group advised, the Commander in Chief is betting that more troops will lead the way to what one White House official calls "victory."
Whose Idea Is This?